WASHINGTON — The new year brings with it a host of new laws affecting how consumers purchase everything from health care to light bulbs.

In Maine, doctors and health care providers will be required to publish price lists for common procedures, while community college students should have an easier time applying their credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Nationally, key components of President Obama’s sweeping health care law take effect in January. Stricter rules on mortgage lenders, meanwhile, will mean more consumer protections for many but a smaller credit line for some home buyers.

HEALTH CARE

Jan. 1 marks the start date for one of the centerpieces of the Affordable Care Act: insurance plans offered by private companies through either federal or state-run marketplaces, or exchanges. As of Dec. 28, more than 2.1 million people had signed up for insurance through the exchanges – far fewer than Obama administration officials had anticipated but a significant increase over mid-fall, when many consumers were driven away by the problem-plagued federal website, HealthCare.gov.

Roughly 1,700 Mainers had enrolled in coverage through the exchange as of Nov. 30, the last date for which federal officials have released state-specific data.

Residents who enrolled in a plan by Dec. 24 should have coverage as of Jan. 1, although doubts remain about whether everyone will because of the numerous technical problems and communications issues between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and insurance companies. DHHS officials on Tuesday urged the newly insured to check with their coverage provider before going to the doctor and to make sure to pay their premiums on time.

But they also touted other aspects of the still-controversial law that begins Wednesday, including: a prohibition on coverage denials due to pre-existing conditions, mandatory mental health and maternity care, and limitations on rate variations because of a person’s age or geographic location.

“Tomorrow is New Year’s Day and is a new day in health care for millions of Americans,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call with reporters.

Jan. 1 also marks the beginning of the “individual mandate,” the requirement that most individuals purchase insurance or face a fine of up to $95 during the first year, with higher amounts later. But consumers have until March 31 to sign up for coverage to avoid the penalty – a deadline that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill hope to push back even further.

On the state level, the Maine Legislature also passed a bill that, beginning Jan. 1, requires doctors and health care providers to compile a price list for common procedures performed 50 or more times per year. The law is an update to an earlier version that was rarely followed and is intended to better inform consumers.

LENDING CHANGES

Years after the housing boom came crashing down, federal regulators are about to impose new restrictions on mortgage companies to avoid another wave of foreclosures resulting from shady lending practices.

On Jan. 10, lenders will have to take more factors into consideration when deciding whether to offer a loan. At the top of those considerations is a lower debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent that could prohibit some loans from going to individuals, although federal regulators responded to lenders’ concerns by essentially exempting that requirement for loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or other federal programs.

The new rules also put tighter restrictions on when lenders can begin foreclosure proceedings in order to offer homeowners more time to begin alternative negotiations.

Banking associations across the country have raised concerns about whether banks, software vendors and lending compliance specialists will be ready for the new rules, however. They urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to delay implementation of the new regulations, but so far to no avail.

“The impending implementation of the Ability to Repay/Qualified Mortgage rules in January of 2014 threatens to destabilize the mortgage finance system in our states, limiting credit to many otherwise qualified borrowers,” reads a letter from banking associations in all 50 states to the head of the consumer protection bureau, Richard Cordray. “We are not seeking to change the QM rule, but we do request a delay so banks can comply without disrupting lending to our customers.”

OTHER CHANGES

A sampling of other state and federal laws or rules that change on Jan. 1 include:

A prohibition on the manufacture or import of 40-watt or 60-watt incandescent light bulbs. While the new regulation – intended to drive consumers toward more energy-efficient compact fluorescent or L.E.D. bulbs – won’t mean those old bulbs have to be removed from store shelves, it does mean stores won’t be able to acquire more once supplies are gone.

In Maine, students who graduate with an associate degree from the Maine Community College System should be able to more easily transfer credits to the University of Maine System under new agreements. The law requires that the agreements prioritize science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) courses.

Maine drivers will be able to make a voluntary $2 contribution to the Maine Organ and Tissue Donation Fund when they apply for or renew a driver’s license. The fund was created to increase awareness about – and participation in – organ donation programs.

Maine veterans should find it easier to obtain certain professional licenses from state agencies and continuing education credits if they received an equivalent accreditation through their military service.

Legal notices will now be posted by newspapers online as well as published in print under a compromise between lawmakers and the Maine Press Association aimed at helping the notices reach a wider audience. In addition to posting the notices online, newspapers must also offer a searchable database by July 1.

State House Bureau Chief Steve Mistler contributed to this report.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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